Here’s how you know a desert tortoise when you see one: It’s the thing that looks like it couldn’t possibly survive in the desert. They lumber along with these piston legs, like a stepstool that’s got somewhere to go. They look as ancient as they are. But also, somehow, even with the shell, they’re vulnerable.
After 15 to 20 million years roaming this land, the desert tortoise is in danger of going extinct.
This is bad not only for the tortoise, but also for the desert. That’s because as a keystone species, the tortoise and its burrows are essential for the health of the whole desert ecosystem.
“Kit foxes, the owls, and even coyotes will repurpose their burrows, so they're very important to the survival of other species as well,” says Sophia Osho, executive administrator of the Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee. Osho is leading a tour of the Desert Tortoise Research Natural Area (DTRNA), a patchwork of desert flatland outside California City.
We’re out here searching for tortoises, but I’m not holding out hope: They spend 95% of their time in their burrows, and it’s brumation season.
(In the winter, you know what people who rescue tortoises do? Put them in a cardboard box, close it up, and stick it in a corner of the garage until spring. True story.)
Out of sight, out of mind: The desert, and its plight, is more or less unknown to the public. But a threat to the tortoise is a threat to the desert. And right now there are more threats than ever.
Whose sun is it?
For one thing, solar power. Giant solar arrays go in, and desert ecosystems crumble. Solar companies clear-cut the desert and put up fences, then install panels that require a lot of water and throw off natural regrowth.
But that’s all for good use, right? A solar farm is basically a big machine that converts the sun’s energy into air conditioning and Netflix. The desert is just a big machine that converts the sun’s energy into tortoises and creosote. Why shouldn’t it be doing something useful for us instead?
“I can't think of anything less logical than destroying the last wilderness that we have here in California, which is our deserts, to develop solar energy, when we have so many places that can serve as ideal recipient environments that don't require that level of destruction of nature,” says Rebecca Hernandez, an ecologist at the University of California, Davis.
Her research suggests that all of California’s solar needs could be met by putting solar projects on places that we’ve already ruined, like the rooftops of huge warehouses and Amazon distribution centers. But they could also go on so-called “brownlands,” which include farmland that’s already been degraded.
That’s top of mind for Erec DeVost. He heads up permitting for the LA-based solar developer 8Minute Energy.
“We're kind of seeking to balance benefits and impacts from our site,” he says. “Obviously, biology is a huge part of that. We're trying to look for degraded land or land that is otherwise not great habitat for sensitive species.”
8Minute Energy has 50 projects in the U.S., including seven in Kern County alone, where the DTRNA is located.
He says that, yes, they’re looking at rooftops and grazed land, but big solar projects ideally need big empty areas with a lot of sunlight — like the desert.
Make way for the humans!
But Brendan Cummings, conservation director for the Center for Biological Diversity, says solar is just one problem.
“The desert tortoise was in trouble before we even started thinking about putting solar projects on the desert,” he says. “It was dying the death of a thousand cuts from all sorts of impacts, including small-scale development and large-scale development in the West Mojave on private lands.”
And this has been going on since the first horse-drawn wagons rolled through. Their marks are still visible, if you know how to look.
“Some of the stagecoach routes, the major routes across the desert, one can still see the impacts,” says Kristin Berry, a scientist with the Western Ecological Research Center. Much of what we know about the desert tortoise, and the trouble it’s in, comes from her research.
She’s been studying the desert since 1971. She explains that tortoise habitat has been reduced by urban development, sheep grazing, military installations, people racing around on off-road vehicles, plus invasive species, which crowd out the native plants and are more prone to wildfires. Roads and highways are extremely dangerous.
Also really bad: the common raven, which followed us humans and our precious dumpsters into the desert and now prey on juvenile tortoises. We’ve helped them out here by putting up electric transmission towers, which they use as nesting sites.
A half century of research shows that tortoise populations all across the Mojave have dropped consistently over the years. Where there might once have been dozens of tortoises per square kilometer, now there might only be a few. In nearly half of those areas studied, the population is so low, there aren’t enough tortoises for reproduction. In other words, the desert tortoise is heading toward extinction.
To both study and protect them, Berry and others established the DTRNA, this 40-square-mile preserve where we’ve been unsuccessfully looking for tortoises.
Berry says there’s no one culprit. “Humans aren't all villains and development isn't all villains, it's something that's essential for a growing population.”
But things do not look good.
“Well, the desert tortoise is moving toward extinction. And certainly, there are some areas that no longer have viable populations that can be sustained in the future, because of the low numbers,” she says. “And I think that's going to be true with not just the tortoise but other species.”
The Wild West is alive and well
A lot of the Mojave desert is on federal land, meaning it’s under the purview of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which has to balance tortoises, solar development, and recreation use like off-road vehicles.
Ever see “Mad Max,” the movie?
“Thanksgiving last year, they had 250,000 people come to the desert for recreation,” says Osho. “So there was actually a cloud in the atmosphere above the desert of ATV riders. … I've never seen anything like it. There were just small RV cities throughout this entire desert.”
Fun fact: A rep from the BLM recently suggested to Osho that when the Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee orders new signs, they should shoot holes in them, because apparently that cuts down on other people shooting holes in them.
What I’m telling you is: Tortoise Country is rough. In the span of a few hours of driving around, we saw campsites with couches and TVs, a Volkswagon flipped on its back like a tortoise, and cannabis grows, which are illegal on federal land.
“As soon as you cross into the desert, the rule of law is aspirational, rather than actual,” says Cummings in regard to allowing unchecked urban development and illegal cannabis grows on federal land.
“In the United States, we'd like to think of our agencies and governments as functional and complying with the rule of law. But the Bureau of Land Management largely operates as if it's already a failed state. It simply does not comply with the law, enforce the law.”
I asked representatives of the BLM about this — if they think it’s a failed state. They wouldn’t address that, but in a statement, the agency says when it finds a cannabis grow, it works with local government and law enforcement to eradicate it.
As for all the people riding around on ATVs?
“When you're dealing with an individual project that's in front of you, it can make it really challenging to strike that multiple-use mandate balance between the renewable energy development, and then the conservation of species and the habitats and the recreational uses that are really important in our desert,” says BLM biologist Amy Fesnock.
BLM is responsible for 10.8 million acres — all these differing priorities. Before 2016, development projects in the desert were taken on a case by case basis. But when the Obama administration prioritized renewable energy development on federal land a decade ago, the BLM began developing a plan to regulate all this. That’s the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, the DRECP. The goal of this is to manage development in seven California counties, where to place projects, which areas are off limits, these kinds of things.
The Bureau of Land Management has set aside a lot of land to be protected: 6.5 million acres for conservation versus about 400,000 acres marked for development.
In a way, you could say this is all the result of best intentions: We want clean energy but that requires land. We decriminalized cannabis, which led to illegal grows. We have federal land open to the public because it belongs to us, but we’re terrible guests. What we touch in the desert, we hurt. When it comes to desert tortoises, it may be us or them.